The Return of the Mercenary

How private armies, and the technology they use, are changing warfare

The use of mercenaries in warfare has a very long history—much longer, in fact, than the almost-exclusive deployment of national militaries to wage wars. Before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended Europe's Thirty Years' War and marked the rise of the modern state system, medieval powers from kings to popes routinely hired private fighters to do battle for them. As state governments sought a monopoly on the use of force within their territories in the 17th century, however, they moved to stamp out violence by non-state actors, including mercenaries, driving the industry underground.

Private militaries never really went away, but according to Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and associate professor at National Defense University, they have experienced a resurgence in the past 25 years. McFate himself was a contractor with DynCorp International, one of the private military companies whose rise is the subject of his recent book, The Modern Mercenary. Companies like DynCorp—and, more infamously, Blackwater—were major players in the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing logistics and other services, as well as armed guards and trainers for local armies. McFate draws a distinction between these types of support contractors, used for defense and training, and mercenaries, who stage offensive operations on behalf of a client. Nigeria has reportedly deployed mercenaries from South Africa and elsewhere in the fight against the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. In practice, however, that difference is not clear-cut. “If you can do one, you can do the other,” McFate told me in a recent interview.

America's reliance on private military companies in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade hasn't just expanded the industry; it's also started to change the conduct of international relations. In theory, armed forces for hire give private actors the option to wage wars where governments can’t, or won’t. In 2008, for example, actress and activist Mia Farrow explored hiring Blackwater to intervene in Darfur, telling ABC News at the time, “Blackwater has a much better idea of what an effective peace-keeping mission would look like than Western governments.” Private military companies also allow governments to disclaim involvement in politically controversial activities. “Putin is using Chechen mercenaries in Ukraine, allegedly,” McFate said. “Who’s going to tell him you can’t do that after 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan?”

What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of an interview I conducted with McFate who, as an employee of the Defense Department, wanted me to note that these are his views, not those of the U.S. government.

Sean McFate: When we think of technology of war, we think of just national armies using it, but now there’s this growing industry of private actors, and they also have access to this technology. They’re already using drones, in an unarmed context, like reconnaissance. It would take very little to make a kamikaze drone. And that’s just going to happen at some point, which means we’re talking about private air forces to some extent.

Kathy Gilsinan: How are private armies using drones?

McFate: Private navies [which some shippers employ to protect seaborne cargo from piracy] would use drones to find out where the pirates are coming from. It’s hard to track the data of who’s buying this globally. In 2007, 2008, some companies and even NGOs were looking at using unarmed drones to go to Darfur and to try to document massacres during the genocide there.

Gilsinan: In the book you raise the point [that private armies lower] the cost of war—and drones do a similar thing when they’re employed by national armies—but that lowering the cost of war could make it more likely.

McFate: The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.

Look at what’s going on in Nigeria right now. If those mercenaries hired by Nigeria that killed Boko Haram are actually succeeding—and it looks like they are, according to reports—and there’s not a whole lot of backlash in the international community, I can imagine somebody saying, well let’s do this against al-Shabab [in Somalia]. And I could also imagine private military actors showing up and saying, you know, when you hired those mercenaries in Nigeria, they were really effective but they were really expensive. I can do the exact same thing they did at one-tenth the price by using this fleet of 200 drones that are armed. So I can see a situation of arms escalation, trying to get to price points that make sense for consumers, if you will. I hate to commodify conflict that way, but that’s kind of what this industry’s about.

[Private armies] also can maybe do things that the national army maybe can’t do. So they offer plausible deniability to policymakers. They can go and commit human-rights violations, frankly. This is a common attraction about hiring private military companies or mercenaries—that they can get away with things that you can’t get away with if you’re a national government.

Gilsinan: Is there any reason to expect that mercenaries would be less susceptible to the corruption and poor training that is a problem in the Nigerian military? Is a private contractor less likely to be corrupt than a government?

McFate: It’s like any other industry. It depends on who the company is. Why do we assume that national militaries, by the nature of the fact that they’re national, are going to be better? We have a stigma against private force that it’s always bloodthirsty and torturous, and that’s just not true. Would you rather be a prisoner of war by Blackwater or by the Zimbabwean military? We can’t cavil too much, because there are a lot of bad-acting militaries out there who are ineffective and they commit human-rights abuse.

I think it’s possible that private military actors can be really effective, and this is also why they were so common in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages they used to have contract warfare—you just hire a military. And they were specialized in some sort of technique that’s too expensive for [a government] to maintain. You can have niches in a marketplace where they become specialists: "We do drone warfare. And we do it really really well. And here’s our price tag to rent us." And if you’re some small country, you can’t afford to maintain that on a year-round basis, but you can rent it when you need it. And so that is an appeal of the marketplace too.

Gilsinan: I was also thinking in terms of the laws of competition. If you are a state, you have the option of one state military, which may be bad or good. But then if you can choose, say, between the Nigerian military and 75 companies that have various specialties, you might not choose your national military in all cases.

McFate: Let’s not forget, a lot of the militaries around the world are very politicized. [The United States doesn’t] have a terribly politicized military. A lot of countries do—like Turkey, Mexico, Nigeria—and if you’re the president and you think there’s going to be a palace coup by the military, maybe you hire mercenaries to protect you. And this is what happens throughout history. So there’s something called the Varangian Guard, these were Viking mercenaries that protected the [Byzantine] emperor in the Middle Ages. [In 1171-1174, King Henry II faced] a huge revolt by the nobility of half of England. He didn’t trust his aristocracy so he ended up hiring all these mercenaries to put down the revolt, which they did because they would be loyal to him. So mercenaries are also useful for some clients because they’re relatively apolitical. They’re loyal to the paycheck. Of course that means they could be bribed, but they’re loyal to the paycheck.

Gilsinan: Under what circumstances are mercenaries "safer" than public armies?

McFate: I think one of the inherent problems is one of safety. Unsupervised or unemployed mercenaries become bandits, or they engage in racketeering. Meaning they come into a town and say, “Give us a hundred thousand dollars, and we won’t sack your village this month, and we’ll come back next month too.” And that happened in the Middle Ages. So this is the problem—they’re really unsafe. Especially when they’re not employed. And then how do you get rid of them?

In theory, a state should have a monopoly of force in its territory to uphold the rule of law. Which is why after the Treaty of Westphalia you started to [see] mercenaries become outlawed by states, because they didn’t want the competition, they were monopolizing force quite literally. And now what’s happening with all sorts of fragile states and conflict states in the world is that they’ve lost the monopoly of force. And the last 25 years, you’ve seen the growth of mercenaries. Slowly, first underground, and then a little larger, and of course the U.S. now legitimized the industry [in] Iraq and Afghanistan, and now we’ve got Nigeria. And tomorrow we’ll have something else. You know, Putin is using Chechen mercenaries in Ukraine, allegedly. Who’s going to tell him you can’t do that after 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan? I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. used private military companies to train Iraqi forces to fight ISIS. The horse has fled the barn on this norm of no mercenaries, no private force.

Gilsinan: Did it ever really go away?

McFate: Mercenaries were always a part of the system, just in the 19th century and 20th century when the Westphalian system was at its zenith, they went underground, it became [a] black market for mercenaries. And we saw them come up in the ‘50s and ‘60s during the African wars of decolonization, but they were very taboo. It wasn’t until after the Cold War that we started to see them become more public, the famous one being Executive Outcomes in South Africa. And now we’re starting to see real mercenaries appearing all over the world in conflict markets. Extractive industries are hiring them, NGOs are hiring them, someday the UN might hire them.

As Americans, we think of it as an American phenomenon. It’s not. These companies, at least the last 10 years, they had American faces, but when I was in DynCorp doing this type of work, a lot of my colleagues were from all over the world. And we’re seeing a proliferation around the world, we’re seeing ex-Latin American special forces showing up in the Gulf States.

Gilsinan: That gets to the question of what happens when they go home.

McFate: What happens after the contract, right? That’s always the question. Some will stay in place, look for new opportunities, or make new opportunities, which happened in the Middle Ages. In the case of these private military companies in Afghanistan and Iraq, a lot of those people came from around the world, they go home to, say, Guatemala, and they can start their own private military company there. We’re also seeing warlords in these places model themselves as private military companies. The end of the book talks about what this will look like, and I call it "durable disorder." A world that will have mercenaries in it will be a world with more war, because mercenaries are incentivized to do that.

Gilsinan: More war but smaller wars?

McFate: Yes. It won’t be like World War III. We call this irregular war, but that’s a misnomer. There’s no such thing as regular versus irregular war, that’s a real Westphalian construction. Most of the wars around the world are dirty, nasty, elongated, in the mud, [smaller] scale. And that’s what’s going to be stoked. Now the question is, can a mercenary outfit suck the U.S. into a war someplace? In 2008, when Mia Farrow wanted to hire Blackwater to stage a humanitarian intervention in Darfur, one of the concerns was, if an American person hired a private military company to go into Darfur, could that draw the U.S. into a war with Sudan? And the answer is, of course it could. That group of people at that point was pretty circumspect, but I can imagine a future where some crazy tycoon hires a private military company to do something outrageous that is for a good cause, but something happens and now the U.S. has got to go rescue people, or stop a situation from getting worse.

Technology allows [private armed groups] to punch above their weight class. And technology’s ever cheaper, ever more available, and so drones and other types of technologies—weapons systems, night-vision goggles—that’s all on the open market as well. So we’ve got an open market for force, swishing around with these markets of technologies. Supply and demand are going to find each other, and that allows a very small group of people to do some big damage.